Changing Lives Overseas
by Tyler English | published Apr. 10th, 2020
The majority of our lives we are told we have the ability to change the lives of others and help those in need. In high school, we attended assemblies that talked about the importance of volunteering and giving back to others. For some, that led to pursuing a career in which that itch could be scratched, and good could be done.
A U.S.-based aid agency, the Peace Corps provides volunteer help to countries that request it.The organization provides those with the urge to volunteer a chance to help communities overcome challenges, as well as change the lives of people all over the world.
The Peace Corps has sent volunteers out since 1961, and this March 2020 will celebrate its 59th anniversary. Having sent over 230,000 volunteers to over 140 countries, the Peace Corps has impacted the lives of many.
Kristina Owens, associate vice president for RIT Government and Community Relations, is a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served two years in southern Bolivia.
“In college, I was thinking, ‘What do I do next? What am I going to do, I have so many interests?’ and constantly brainstorming what can I do after I graduate,” Owens said.
“In college, I was thinking, ‘What do I do next?'"
Owens began talking to Peace Corps recruiters at her college, SUNY Geneseo, about possible opportunities. Her program would help her attain her master’s degree and then volunteer in a country where her interests and skills would be most useful.
Before traveling overseas, the Peace Corps trains volunteers for the road ahead and for what it is like to live immersed in a different culture.
“[The Peace Corps] would train you and set you up so that you could serve,” Owens said.
Jeffrey Cox, director of International Student Services, is also a returned Peace Corps volunteer who underwent the Peace Corps training.
Cox grew up in France as a child, so he learned to speak French. Later in his life he developed a love and fascination for tropical fish; he kept them as pets in his middle and high school years. His love for fish fed his desire to visit and see them in their natural habitat. With most of his fish being from central Africa, his placement in the Peace Corps brought him to a place he had always dreamed of visiting.
“In high school I actually wrote [the Peace Corps] a letter, and they responded back saying, 'Get your college degree first and then come back and talk to us,'” Cox said.
Toward the end of his college career, Cox applied to the Peace Corps. Once accepted, he began his training; he learned leadership skills and other expertise that would be vital to his position in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Volunteering for the Peace Corps means time spent overseas helping local communities. Not only would you be stationed in a community, but you would also become a member of that community; you would live among the people who you are helping, eat the food they eat and adapt to their culture and lifestyle.
“The Peace Corps provides you a stipend to live off of while you are there, but they provide it at a level so that you are living at the same level as the people you are working with,” Cox said.
This fully immersive experience can be incredibly eye opening for someone, Cox explained. Think of it as study abroad but dialed up; you live and share your everyday life and activities with the people you're serving.
For Owens, becoming a welcomed member of the community allowed her to see the issues they were facing. This immersion helped her prioritize the projects that needed her immediate attention.
“[The community and I] ranked four or five different projects that we thought that we should be doing,” Owens said. “Number one was a school library.”
Having experience in forestry and environmental science, Owens never imagined she would be helping build a library. After becoming a part of the community, she was able to identify this project that would not only be attainable, but would enrich the lives of so many community members.
Adjusting back to the way of life in America is the second round of culture shock for Peace Corps volunteers; but, for Cox and Owens, the Peace Corps was a time that they will never forget and gave them memories that they carry with them to this day.
“One culture is definitely not better than another; they are just different,” Cox said. “Most people across the world share a lot of the same principles and beliefs.”
“Most people across the world share a lot of the same principles and beliefs.”
Serving in the Peace Corps fresh out of college is a trend that is for some but not for others. Cox said that the Peace Corps is encouraging more and more people to get their degrees and spend time working in their fields before applying to volunteer. This gives volunteers more time to develop skills they can use while overseas.
Given how STEM-centric RIT is, students graduate with degrees that are needed in the industry right when they graduate. In this case, Owens encourages students to wait to apply to the Peace Corps until they have honed their skills. This is a great way to get sent to volunteer in a region where they may be trying to get their first internet network and phone lines up and running.
Dr. Josephine Olsen, the current director of the Peace Corps, will deliver the May 2020 commencement speech.